Celebrating IWD 2024: Claire Bishop, Dobbies

by | Mar 8, 2024 | Business, Centre News, Chains, Features, Horticulture | 0 comments

Claire Bishop of Dobbies

Garden Centre Retail catches up with the senior buyer of houseplants for the 77 Dobbies Stores, Claire Bishop, to talk about her role, her experience, and her passion for plants.

How did you get into the sector and how long have you been in this industry?

I’ve been with Dobbies for 14 years and I’ve been on the buying team for 5 years. I initially joined the business at store level, I looked after visual merchandising, and I moved around a few stores. Prior to that, I worked in the high street, but my background is my mum is a florist, my dad imported cut flowers and plants, so since being knee-height to my mum, I’ve been surrounded by flowers and plants.

I went from school straight to horticultural college to study floristry and plant botanics, which looking back on it now is just houseplants! Within that was how you can commercially show off those products, things like window displays, visual merchandising etc. Coming to Dobbies almost encapsulated all of that from what I did at quite a young age.

It was our horticultural director, Marcus Eyles who approached me for my current role. He visited all the stores; he would see that the houseplant areas and how the displays were all put together was with care and knowledge. When the role became available, I interviewed for it and was given the role as houseplant buyer. Two years later I was promoted to senior buyer, and now I look after all things houseplants, all things pots, indoor and outdoor, substrates such as indoor compost and feeds. It’s quite a broad spectrum, but the good thing about that is I can basically give everything the customer is looking for within my buyer remit.

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Dobbies – Poinsettia 1 SA : Dobbies – Poinsettia Claire Bishop of Dobbies All images © Stewart Attwood Photography 2023.

Claire, what does your day to day role include?

It can be different everyday depending on what the focus is, what has come through that day, or what the season is. Just now, it’s the busiest fortnight of the year for us as it’s approaching Mother’s Day. That’s taking up a lot of my time.

The good thing about indoor plants is that it’s almost opposite to outdoor plants. When it’s very much in full pelt trading, houseplants are the opposite – the peak is very much from Christmas through to Easter.

Every day, I could be sourcing new plants, looking for new products. With having 77 stores, there’s different needs for customers, and different demographics – we’ve got little dobbies as well which is a different customer from some of the more traditional main line centres. It can be a real mix. What I do try and do is work very much on one thing – If I’m working on pottery, I work on it for a set time.

I work very closely with the PR and marketing team making sure we’re getting the right images of the products, so that all our offerings come across with authority, you know that you can relate to the product and it’s not all about botanical jargon.

It must have been an interesting time for you with the boom of houseplants since the pandemic. We’ve seen millennials really having an affinity with houseplants. Have you noticed and increase in trends or a change in buying cycles since starting your current role?

Yes I would say it really started with cacti and succulents – if you’re a first time plant parent, you can buy a cactus and you’re likely not to kill it unless you over-love it. That made people gain a bit of confidence, which led into foliage. We went from not being able to sell monstera plants, as in the growers would sell them as cut stems, to now being one of the most sought-after plants. It’s really been a lot of revival on the plants I remember my gran having – aspidistra, monstera and Christmas cactus, anything like that.

Certainly, there is a lot spoken about when you were stuck in your house, being able to care and nurture for a plant, that was able to grow with you as well. You don’t know how a plant feels, but it’s nice to see one growing.

We still see trends in foliage, a lot of the people who felt comfortable with plants during the pandemic moved on to more rare plants and they became really sought after. However, as the market has caught up with that, they’re not as expensive now, there’s now lots of amazing plants out there that are much more affordable.

We have, probably in the past six months, seen a switch to flowering plants. The feedback we’re getting is that it’s all about colour, so bromeliads are very popular, they give you the tropical foliage but with the pop of colour. Obviously, Mother’s Day is all about flowers too, no matter what it is, if it has a flower on it, it’s popular.

How much do you think Instagram has influenced the plant selection and the customers? Are plant influencers really having an effect for the buyer?

When it’s true influencing, as in this is their natural calling, it’s what they know about and their knowledge is there, and the content they’re giving is credible, it has an effect. There’s a lot of good people that I follow and I’m really good friends with, because they are true to the industry which is nice.

You mentioned the 77 different Dobbies stores, how different is the demographic between each store? Are some of the stores behind the curve in the trends due to the demographic, and are there specific stores in specific location that you must be searching for the next big thing for?

For sure. Our little dobbies stores on the high streets are very much plant stores and are very much driven by the demographic that is looking for something a little bit different, or the instant gratification.

The main estate as a whole has some large stores that have really brilliant houseplant shops, and that can very much be due to the area they are in, or that the person that’s in that store has built up a customer base that only visits them to get the plants.

We do work closely with the stores making sure that they get the ranges that they need, but we must maintain that core all year-round foliage and flowering for our customer that has been coming to Dobbies for years.

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Having spoken to many independent garden centres, the one thing that they mention quite a lot when it comes to houseplants is the added value. Have you seen that?

Before, people would only use a multipurpose compost – a one size fits all solution, now there’s a great range of specialist composts that are specific for plants and their own root structures, which makes the customer more comfortable when repotting as they know it’s specifically for their plant.

The surge in plant care is because people have more plants. That was almost always going to happen, and of course, if you have a statement plant in your house, you want something decorative that matches your decor. Some might want something quite decorative, or hand finished, or glazed for example. There’s so many different options out there, and I work a lot with our different pot manufacturers to try to match pots to the plants.

In terms of your supplier relationships, Claire, you must be one of the most sought-after contacts in the horticulture industry! How do you manage those relationships, are you stuck on the suppliers that you are already using or are you looking for the new thing?

I’m always looking. There are so many exciting new businesses in the sector, and it’s about getting the right product for the customer for the product that we are putting in front of them. I travel over to the Netherlands a lot as a lot of my growers over there, but there’s some great growers in the UK as well, it’s about using each of their strengths. It doesn’t have to be that I buy a range that goes to all 77 stores, I can get a smaller supplier in to supply maybe just little dobbies, or little dobbies and ten main stores. There are many ways we work with a variety of different suppliers.

Where do you see your role growing Claire, and how do you feel that you will grow with the role?

I love what I do, I’m passionate about my product. It’s difficult to drive something if you’re not passionate about it. I currently work a lot with the marketing team and the visual team so we can improve the department, make it easier for customers to navigate.

We want to bring more online product – not everyone wants to buy a plant online, I fully appreciate that and personally I would like to see the plant before buying, but there are customers that want to gift plants, so we need to make sure the range we have in store reflects online as well.

For me, I’ve got a great team, it’s all about developing new things, it’s a bit of a pun, but the plant division is always growing because there’s always something new coming. It’s about us trying to stay a little step ahead. I’ve got a lot in development over the next couple of years working with a lot of my growers, so we need to remain that step ahead, and keeping our offering exciting and interesting, we don’t just want to do the same thing all the time. 

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In terms of advice for other women coming into this sector, what would be your tips for thriving?

Being honest, it’s traditionally been a male dominated environment. The thing with horticulture is that it’s landscaping, and other areas that are manual jobs. I love going into my garden and digging etc, but there are other avenues in horticulture, be it from garden design or buying, like me.

It’s about breaking down the barriers and you need to be true in what you believe is working. Just because we used to do something in a way, doesn’t mean that’s how it always needs to be done. It’s having the confidence in yourself, proving the value that you bring, then pushing it further.

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